With Anibal Sanchez being signed, the talk of Tigertown has immediately turned to the fate of Rick Porcello. The Tigers now have, by some calculations, too much pitching. Too much, as in, six. That is the number of pitchers in the entire organization that are qualified to start in the major leagues.
We know about the top four, which I suggested give Detroit the best rotation in the major leagues. But Porcello is part of that equation as well. He doesn’t figure as prominently as some of the others, but a club needs depth in their starting rotation. For the Tigers, they’ll need either Drew Smyly or Porcello to start the season in the rotation, and they’ll need more than that.
When is the last time you remember the Tigers getting through the entire regular season without any injuries to their starting rotation? I can’t either. In 2012, Doug Fister went on the disabled list twice for a total of six weeks. Smyly missed some starts in late July, right about the time that Sanchez was acquired before the trade deadline.
The replacements that were called up to start games in the absence of Fister and Smyly did not fare so well. Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner, and Adam Wilk started three games each, and they posted ERAs of 9.49, 8.03, and 8.18, respectively. They allowed opponents to hit .313, .321, and .412. They allowed WHIP totals of 2.11, 1.95, and 2.18. It wasn’t pretty.
None of the three replacements lasted more than a total of 12.1 innings between their three starts. In 35.2 innings, they allowed a total of 35 runs, only one of them unearned. Duane Below pitched in with one start. He lasted 2.2 innings giving up five hits and a run. In summary, the results were a disaster for Detroit.
The addition of Sanchez gives the Tigers a solid top four- as solid as any in the game. Drew Smyly showed great promise in his rookie season, making 18 starts, pitching 99.1 innings while allowing an ERA of 3.99, a WHIP of 1.27, and holding opponents to a batting average of .247. He appears to be a bona fide major league starting pitcher. Arguably, he is as good as Porcello already and will only get better as he makes fewer mistake pitches cutting down on his HR ratio.
Some fans have argued that Porcello should have been traded even before the club resigned Sanchez. Now, the cries to deal Kid Rick are even louder. Reports in the media suggest that he’s being shopped, and might be traded for such a paltry return as a relief pitcher or a streaky hitting fourth outfielder. I wouldn’t do that.
Since being rated as the best high school pitcher in the 2007 amateur draft, Porcello has not lived up to the hype. Detroit picked him in the first round, 27th overall, and gave him a signing bonus of $ 7.2 million, well above the Commissioner's slot recommendation. Porcello was given a major league contract, and he quickly made his way to the major leagues. The results have been reliable, though not spectacular.
Porcello is also a bona fide major league starting pitcher, and not a bad one at that. At just age 23, he has four seasons under his belt, posting double digit wins each year- a total of 48 W’s. He improved his strikeout ratio last year, although he will never be a classic "strikeout pitcher". He ranked 12th in the league in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), and 11th in xFIP, which is adjusted for the league and ballparks. Over the past three seasons, Porcello's ERA has declined each year, his HR ratio has declined, his FIP and xFIP have dropped, while his strikeout ratio and ground ball ratio have increased and his BB rate has remained fairly steady.
In 2012, Porcello also led the league in ground ball to fly ball ratio, at 2.36, and he allowed the highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) among all qualified starters in the American League, at .344. That suggests that he is either very unlucky, or he has shaky defense behind him on all those ground balls, or he gets hit harder than most. Or some combination of the above.
Porcello’s line drive percentage ranks third in the league, although there is an argument that this data incorporates some inductive reasoning. In fact, Verlander and Scherzer also rank among the top 11 in LD%. It’s a given that the Tiger defense wasn’t the greatest in the world last season, but most would agree that it’s likely to be improved with Infante in 2013, and could be improved more with proper use of defensive replacements for the shortstop more often.
This is not to say that Porcello has merely been the victim of bad defense and bad luck, so things should be better next season. His FIP has consistently been about one run lower than his ERA. The Detroit defense is what it is. Just realize that any pitcher who comes to Detroit will have the same defense behind them, and ground balls will tend to find the outfield for them as well.
Porcello has also been the picture of a healthy pitcher during his time in Detroit. He has made 31 starts every season, including four starts in Toledo in 2010 when he was sent down to work on his game. He has a very fluid delivery, no mechanical issues, and no violent delivery. He has been very reliable, meaning that replacement disasters have not taken place on his account. But better defense and/ or better luck should improve his numbers at least somewhat. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs tabbed Porcello as a candidate for a big breakout season in 2013.
Keeping Porcello on the roster would mean that either he or Smyly would be either sent to the minors or to the bullpen. He does have one option left. Perhaps that is a luxury that the team thinks it can not afford, especially if Smyly earns the fifth and final spot in the rotation this spring. Plus, he stands to make about a 4.7 million salary this season, his second season of arbitration eligibility- more than a club wants to pay a sixth starter.
The point of all this is that Porcello has value to the Tigers. More value than a fourth outfielder who could platoon with Andy Dirks. More value than a relief pitcher, in any role. He would very likely have more value to other clubs. Clubs with better infield defense, and clubs in need of a mid rotation starting pitcher.
At age 23, most clubs would likely agree that Porcello’s best years are yet to come. Starting pitchers without a troubled health history, with three seasons of club control remaining, have value to almost any team, at almost any time. That value will only rise as the few remaining free agent starting pitchers are signed. But there is always a need for starting pitching. Always.
A reliable starting pitcher has more value than a relief pitcher, even a closer. The Tigers would benefit more by putting Smyly in the bullpen than they would by swapping Porcello for a relief pitcher, or a part time outfielder.
The Tigers do have needs, if not now then after this season, when Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta will be free agents. An infielder that will be ready to step into a starting role in the middle infield would be fair value for a reliable starting pitcher.
I would suggest that the Tigers wait for the right deal. It’s always more important to do things right than it is to do them quickly. There will always be a market for pitching. Don’t trade Porcello unless and until it’s clear that he won’t be needed, and until the Tigers can get fair value for him. Porcello is a starter, and the Tigers should expect to get a starter in return.